YOUNG & HUNGRY - LUIZ MORALES
Two seasons ago, rookie Luiz Morales announced his presence to the indoor soccer world by scoring only 94 seconds into his Major Arena Soccer League debut. He went onto record a hat-trick in that game.
Several weeks later, Morales, then a 22-year-old striker with the Dallas Sidekicks, talked about what he wanted to accomplish in his promising career.
"If it's possible this year, but probably not, but in the next few years, become one of the top strikers in the league," he said.
"I want to be remembered in setting my standards high."
Morales has lived up to those words and then some in his third MASL season.
Entering this weekend's action, Morales is off to a scintillating start to the 2023-24 campaign. In seven games for the Texas Outlaws, he has drilled home a league-leading 16 goals, while collecting five assists.
Outlaws head coach Tatu, who knows a thing or two about scoring, can recognize a potent goal-scorer when he sees one.
"The amazing thing about Luiz is that he has developed tremendous strength," said Tatu, who connected for 857 goals and 1,585 points in his legendary career. "He is so powerful and very difficult to move away from the ball. He improved his ability to strike the ball, which makes him a very, very, very dangerous player. Anytime he touches the ball, he has the opportunity to score.
"It's amazing what he does. It's unbelievable. It's fun to watch."
Especially for Outlaws fans, not so much for the rest of the league.
In his first seven matches this season, the 5-11, 190-lb. forward has collected four hat-tricks, including three in his last four contests. He tallied at least a goal in each game. He began the season with three goals against the Baltimore Blast (Dec. 2) before adding single goals against the Chihuahua Savage (Dec. 7) and Sidekicks (Dec. 9).
Then came a blistering streak of netting 11 goals in four games. He started it with a hat-trick against the Kansas City Comets (Dec. 16), bagged "only" a brace and two assists against the Comets the next afternoon (Dec. 17) before finding the net three times each against the Sidekicks (Dec. 23) and Milwaukee Wave (Dec. 30). He also had an assist in the two most recent matches.
Morales doesn't just put the ball into the back of the net, he does it spectacularly.
With the Outlaws clinging to a 7-6 lead against the Wave with 2:16 remaining in the game, Morales gained possession of the ball around the Texas yellow line, bolted down field and warded off a challenge by a defender. From the right flank, he drove a shot off the crossbar and into the net past goalkeeper William Banahene to give the hosts an 8-6 advantage, which became the final score.
"I demand of myself at least two goals per game,” Morales said. “Even if I have an off game, I know for sure that I'll at least get one. As a forward, you're supposed to score goals. So, I tried to set my standard up pretty high to three goals."
Regardless of how many times he puts the ball into the goal, Morales is never satisfied. Like many attackers, he wants more and more and more.
"I stay hungry," he said. "I keep working. Once I get my first one, I just keep getting hungrier. Then the second one will come and the third one will come. Hopefully, I have a couple of games this season where I can get more than three."
Morales once scored five goals in a 9-8 loss at Utica City FC on Jan. 7, 2023.
Like it or not, no player can score every time he or she takes a shot. So, they need to be strong mentally. They need to bounce back from a goalkeeper making an outstanding save or a defender blocking a shot that was headed for the back of the net.
"It's a game of mistakes," Morales said. "Sometimes missing one is a mistake of mine. I take a deep breath. It's already past. I just try to go on to the next one. I just got to stay focused, stay positive, even after a miss. We have some great goalkeepers in the league. Sometimes you've got to give them credit when they make the save. Just go on to the next one."
And when one goes in, there is not a better feeling in the world than scoring a goal. For Morales, that culminates a week of proper training.
"It's an amazing feeling, especially when you start the week off," he said. "It's Monday and sometimes your body's sore from the past week. But I go out there and I still practice. I still do my stuff after practice. So, when I score it definitely feels rewarding. It's something I always look forward to when we're coming up to game day and making sure I find the back of the net because there's no feeling like scoring. Other than winning."
The scary thing about it is that Morales, now 24, still hasn't reached his potential. As a rookie in 2021-22, he recorded 22 goals and eight assists, while adding 23 goals and 10 assists last season. And this campaign he has soared to those sweet 16 goals and five assists, and the season is barely one-third over.
Tatu has had the forward refine his game.
"I do believe he can continue improving," he said. "If he plays a little lower to the ground ... I think he's too straight. His body position sometimes does not allow him to do a few other things."
A young player such as Morales doesn’t come around very often.
"We don't see many of those anymore, a forward, a post-up player who can stay there, grind through the process," Tatu added. "I see a lot of forwards today. They pop out that they want a face you know. They go negative, a lot to be more direct to the goal. Luiz has the bulk. He can face [the goal] and he can post up. I think that's what makes him special. He's not just a one-dimensional type of player.
"That's the good thing about the group we have here. We have a bunch of young players who are fun to watch. They make some mistakes. Sometimes it drives you crazy because you want to see a little bit more discipline and consistency. They're so electric, and you cannot take that away from them. I think Luiz is one of those players. Sometimes he does things that maybe that's not the kind of way we want to do it, but it comes out well. It's a pleasure. He's a good kid. He has a good heart, and he loves the game. That's the fun thing about it."
Morales has had no qualms about Tatu tweaking his game, especially around the goal.
"I'm a little knucklehead when it comes down to being at the back post sometimes," he said. "During practice he gives me tips about being back post all the time and how to post up, how to turn. Sometimes my technique is not right or it's a little off. He helps me with those little details that actually end up paying out a lot."
The young forward realized team training and games are not necessarily enough to hone his abilities and take his game to another level. He has listened to Tatu's advice to work on his own, whether it is staying after training, taking part in shooting drills or going to a gym.
"I think that the extra work and that advice has helped as well," Morales said.
The sky seems to be the limit for Morales, in and out of the league.
Beyond scoring goals, Morales naturally wants to win an MASL title.
"I want to get a championship under my name and anything individual is just something that comes on the side," he said. "I know it's only my third year but that's definitely a goal of mine."
And there’s more.
In September, Morales was called up to the U.S. Men’s Futsal National Team training camp. He wants to earn a spot on the USA squad that will compete in Concacaf futsal qualifying in Nicaragua next spring, win the tournament and perform in the FIFA Futsal World Cup, set for Uzbekistan from Sept. 14-Oct. 6, 2024.
“That’s the dream, that’s goal,” he said. “Being able to wear that crest on shirt is a big goal of mine. If I can get that call-up, I will feel very blessed and it will be very rewarding, knowing that you were selected to represent your country.”
Before any international glory, Morales will need to focus on his domestic pursuits with the Outlaws, who have gotten off to a promising 4-2-1 start (13 points). They are in second place to the San Diego Sockers (5-0-0, 15), who have two games in hand, as the Western Division leaders.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at www.RochesterLancersBook.com.